I Can’t Write Cursive…

… and apparently that makes me some kinda idjit.

Here’s all I have to say about that:

UPDATE: I should clarify that the comments weren’t directed at me personally, but on various conversations I’ve seen more than one person say it is not possible to consider yourself literate unless you master cursive.

I don’t disagree with The Anchoress on this. I think cursive is nice. So is flower arranging and cabinetry. I can’t do those things, either. Some people are just taking it too far, and making it a sign of a character flaw or a lack of literacy. In my case and my son’s, it’s frankly a motor defect.

Administration Issues Final Rules on Contraception Coverage and Religious Organizations

This just came from the White House Office of Communications. Offered without comment, but there are no surprises here:

Today, the Obama administration issued final rules that balance the goal of providing women with coverage for recommended preventive care – including contraceptive services prescribed by a health care provider – with no cost-sharing, with the goal of respecting the concerns of non-profit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage. The final rules reflect public feedback received in response to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued in February 2013.

“The health care law guarantees millions of women access to recommended preventive services at no cost,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “Today’s announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other non-profit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work.”

Today’s final rules finalize the proposed simpler definition of “religious employer” for purposes of the exemption from the contraceptive coverage requirement in response to concerns raised by some religious organizations. These employers, primarily houses of worship, may exclude contraceptive coverage from their health plans for their employees and their dependents.

The final rules also lay out the accommodation for other non-profit religious organizations – such as non-profit religious hospitals and institutions of higher education – that object to contraceptive coverage. Under the accommodation these organizations will not have to contract, arrange, pay for or refer contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds, but such coverage is separately provided to women enrolled in their health plans at no cost. The approach taken in the final rules is similar to, but simpler than, that taken in the proposed rules, and responds to comments made by many stakeholders.

With respect to an insured health plan, including a student health plan, the non-profit religious organization provides notice to its insurer that it objects to contraception coverage. The insurer then notifies enrollees in the health plan that it is providing them separate no-cost payments for contraceptive services for as long as they remain enrolled in the health plan.

Similarly, with respect to self-insured health plans, the non-profit religious organization provides notice to its third party administrator that objects to contraception coverage. The third party administrator then notifies enrollees in the health plans that it is providing or arranging separate no-cost payments for contraceptive services for them for as long as they remain enrolled in the health plan.

The final rules provide more details on the accommodation for both insurers and third party administrators. The final rules strike the appropriate between respecting the religious considerations raised by non-profit religious organizations and increasing access to important preventive services for women.

The final rules are available here.

For more information about today’s final rules visit here.

Mysterious Medieval Manuscript is Probably Not a Hoax

The Voynich Manuscript has baffled everyone since it was first acquired (or, some say, forged) by collector Wilfrid Voynich in 1912.

Probably dating to the 15th century and originating in Northern Italy, the manuscript consists of 240 pages of vellum covered in a mysterious, indecipherable script and illustrations of non-existent plants, astronomical diagrams, tiny naked pregnant women, and other oddities.

The script has defied any attempt to crack it by either philologists or cryptographers, and the entire thing is usually written off as a hoax. I’ve never agreed with that, and assume the text has some meaning, even if it is the ravings of a lunatic Italian monk.

Now, computer analysis suggests that the writing is, in fact, an actual text with meaning ,and not mere gibberish.

The new study in Plos One by theoretical physicist Marcelo Montemurro and Argentina’s Damian Zanette brings more computerized statistical analysis techniques to bear on the text.

In looking at the frequency and patterns of various words and their distribution over the entire book, as well as their relationship to other words, the researchers focused on a “statistical signature” suggesting it’s not just gibberish.

“We show that the Voynich manuscript presents a complex organization in the distribution of words that is compatible with those found in real language sequences,” they write.

“We are also able to extract some of the most significant semantic word-networks in the text. These results together with some previously known statistical features of the Voynich manuscript, give support to the presence of a genuine message inside the book.”

Previous research has also shown that Voynichese is similar to real languages. What the words may mean, however, and whether they represent an encoded known language or a completely made-up one, is still up for debate.

My guess? It’s an esoteric or herbalist text in an encrypted invented language that may have only ever been understood by one man: the author. The lack of correlation between the plants in the manuscript and real plants may just be a novel and extended example of a kind of botanical grotesque.

Claims that it’s either a modern forgery or mere gibberish are unconvincing. Someone filled 240 sheets of valuable vellum with closely-written text and intricate art, indicating a labor that likely took years and showed some level of intelligence and skill. Even if it’s the work of a madman, it at least made sense to him.

Or maybe … you know …

 

Facebook’s “Shadow Profile” Problem

Sometimes it takes a big screwup to reveal a bigger problem. The news that Facebook maintains so-called “shadow profiles” of both users and–some allege–non-users is not new. Privacy groups started raising red flags about the policy at least two years ago, but the details remained obscure.

A “shadow profile” is, basically, extra data on you which you never provided to Facebook. Typically, this is harvested as part of “Finding Friends” feature that combs through a user’s contact list looking for people they know who might also be on Facebook. It also draws data from friends, conversations you have, things you like, and topics you post about.

What people may not realize is that the emails and phone numbers found during this process apparently attached to your profile even if you do not provide that data to Facebook.

And, at least at some point, it saved that data even if you didn’t have a Facebook account.

Some time in the last year, an exploit appeared that merged the public data and the private data for people who downloaded and saved profile information. This exploit affected as many as 6 million people.

This means that if someone has your email and phone number in their contact list and they allow Facebook to access that data, that data is saved and attached to your Facebook profile even if you never provided it.

Here’s how Facebook explained it in their sorta-apology:

When people upload their contact lists or address books to Facebook, we try to match that data with the contact information of other people on Facebook in order to generate friend recommendations. For example, we don’t want to recommend that people invite contacts to join Facebook if those contacts are already on Facebook; instead, we want to recommend that they invite those contacts to be their friends on Facebook.

Because of the bug, some of the information used to make friend recommendations and reduce the number of invitations we send was inadvertently stored in association with people’s contact information as part of their account on Facebook. As a result, if a person went to download an archive of their Facebook account through our Download Your Information (DYI) tool, they may have been provided with additional email addresses or telephone numbers for their contacts or people with whom they have some connection. This contact information was provided by other people on Facebook and was not necessarily accurate, but was inadvertently included with the contacts of the person using the DYI tool.

After review and confirmation of the bug by our security team, we immediately disabled the DYI tool to fix the problem and were able to turn the tool back on the next day once we were satisfied that the problem had been fixed.

We always assumed Facebook was compiling plenty of data that was not provided to them, and that this was stored unseen to us. The extent of their data-gathering, however, still remains a bit fuzzy, and the idea that they were mining contact data had been assumed but remained unproven.

If PRISM taught us anything, it should be that the age of privacy is over. It really is, and as a former privacy nut I’m deeply disturbed at its passing.

However, it is becoming almost impossible to take advantages of the conveniences, power, and connectivity of the digital age while also retaining a firm grip on privacy. Watching Netflix, streaming Google Play, buying from Amazon, chatting on Facebook or Skype: these are all things I enjoy, and I’m glad they’re exist.

 

Unfortunately, they also mean that my entertainment choices, opinions, buying habits, and even my conversations and movements are exposed, collected, stored, and commodified.

In my own minor way, I’m a “Public Person.” My photo has been under my name in a column in at least one magazine–and often as many as three–every month for over two decades. I got my first “death threat” in 1994, when the internet was young and “I’m going to kill you for saying something bad about a game I like” was still a novel amusement. I’ve blogged since 2010.

So … privacy? It’s a little late for that. It’s kind of pointless for me to complain that Hulu and their partners know I watched “Voodoo Man” last night when I’m writing that I watched “Voodoo Man” last night at this very moment, and posting it to be read by about 5,000 to 10,000 people.

However … most people are not an opinion writer and magazine editor, or a politician, star, executive, YouTube sensation, or other public or semi-public figure. They’d rather keep their choices personal, and their information private.

And so they will need to make hard choices. Give up some of the niceties and conveniences–and even, for some, the necessities–of the digital age for a privacy which they will never get back.

I came to Facebook slowly and reluctantly. It seemed like little more than a playground for narcissists. I’ve since found it useful for sharing photos with family, links to my posts, and other items of interest. I’ve gotten to know people there and formed real friendships, particularly within the tight-knit Catholic community. I can stay in touch with people I just don’t get to see and far-flung family can keep up with news and photos of my kids in the most convenient way possible.

I keep all of that “locked down,” knowing that nothing is really ever “locked down” on Facebook. Most people can’t see the things I set for “Friends Not Acquaintances,” but it remains possible that a determined person could access them with some effort. I have a “public page” that you can follow, but usually I don’t add people I don’t know to my private page. (If you’ve tied to add me and gotten no response, it’s because I usually keep the private page for colleagues, friends, and family. The public page is here.  Some of my personal page is public. Most of it isn’t.)

As for all that “metadata” such as emails, phone numbers, entertainment preferences, and friends? That box was opened long ago, and we’re never going to slam it shut again. See also: Pandora.

Today I changed my profile just to screw around: changing  my birthday to 1913, my college to Miskatonic University, my high school to Miss Havisham’s School For Wayward Girls, things like that. It’s a small gesture of contempt to Mark Zuckerberg and his prying minions, and although ultimately meaningless, it provided a few minutes of amusement.

I will continue to use Facebook as I have, with eyes wide open to its inherent flaws. I know that it’s not free: I’m paying for it with my private data. That is the coin of the realm in the internet age.

There’s an old saying in the tech field: If a service is free, you are not the customer: you are the product being sold.

8 Happy Things From My Week

Summer is already shaping up to be a lot looser here on GATM. Traffic is always a little lower in summer, and the content tends to be slightly less serious in general. We’ve also been going through quite a lot here, and the heavy thoughts are not coming with great ease, so here are a few things I’ve encountered this week that made me happy.

 1. Joseph Ratzinger

I’m spending a semester immersed in the writings of Benedict/Ratzinger for a graduate class, and  my family got me Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI for Father’s Day. It focuses on the theme of joy in the pope’s writings, and how Christianity is an outpouring of and invitation to a life of pure joy. I’m enjoying it so far.

 2. The Lego Movie

Lego is the Greatest Toy Ever. Lego games are full of sly wit and brilliant use of pantomime. Even Lego TV shows are pretty decent. About the only bad thing I can say about Lego is the magnetic quality they have for the soft flesh of the bottom of the foot.

And this just looks grand:

3. Universal Monsters

I’m a 1970s Monster Kid, raised on Universal Monsters, AIP, Hammer, Toho, Harryhausen, Corman, Kong, Aurora Models, and Famous Monsters of Filmland. The original Universal films remain one of my true cinematic loves, and even though I insisted I would not upgrade my whole DVD collection to Blu-Ray, I am picking up some select reissues. The latest are the restored titles in the Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection. For the first time, the major linchpins of the Universal stable–Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Phantom of the Opera, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and the Invisible Man–have been treated to superb digital restorations and cleanups. They have never looked this good, and some, such as Dracula, are an astonishing improvement. Beautiful work on important films, with features carried forward from the old DVD sets and a couple new features as well.

4. Critters

Bertie hanging out in my son’s chess trophy.

Carrie, getting closer to laying

Bell, helping with the gardening

 5. Eggs

My new batch started laying early. Happy happy joy joy.

6. Ridiculous Fishing: A Tale of Redemption

 

Drop your toaster-, hairdryer-, and chainsaw-equipped lure into the water; let it drop as deep as possible; catch as many fish as you can on the way up; and then blast them with your orbital laser. Oh yeah. (For iPhone and iPad.)

7. Popeye Volume 5: Wha’s a Jeep?

We now have all but one of Fantagraphics’ beautiful books reproducing EC Segar’s complete run of Popeye. My daughter devours these as soon as they show up. I love ’em too. In many ways, they’re as good as the Carl Barks and Dona Rosa runs on Uncle Scrooge.

8. This 

And, er … This…

Have a good weekend, folks. May it be filled with popes, Daleks, exploding fish, and 1970s-era kids with mysteriously inappropriate TV show merchandise.

Melissa Etheridge’s Dangerous New Age Babble

Angelina Jolie has been in the news recently for choosing to have a double mastectomy, even though she does not have breast cancer. She does, however, have the BRCA gene mutation which could lead to breast cancer, and although a voluntary double mastectomy is a radical choice, it’s also a reasonable one.

This is not an abstract issue for Jolie: her mother died of the disease at age 56, and the odds of her getting it are very high. The decision is not an easy one, and I think it’s fair to say that any woman would require a large amount of fortitude to make it. When that woman is also known for her physical appearance, the choice becomes even more challenging. The word “brave” gets thrown around a little too easily these days, but I’d say her choice to voluntarily surgically remove her breasts qualifies.

Singer Melissa Etheridge isn’t having any of that “brave” talk, however.

Etheridge, also a breast cancer survivor, said the decision was “fearful,” not brave, as if those things are somehow exclusive of each other. The brave person is often bravest in the face of fear. Fear brings bravery to the surface. It’s actually a fairly integral part of the idea of bravery. Fear is the prompt: bravery is the response.

If all Etheridge was doing was offering a bit of semantic hair-splitting, I wouldn’t really bother with a post. However, she followed up her comments with this bit of looniness:

“My belief is that cancer comes from inside you and so much of it has to do with the environment of your body. It’s the stress that will turn that gene on or not. Plenty of people have the gene mutation and everything but it never comes to cancer so I would say to anybody faced with that, that choice is way down the line on the spectrum of what you can do and to really consider the advancements we’ve made in things like nutrition and stress levels.”

“I’ve been cancer free for nine years now and looking back, I completely understand why I got cancer,” Etheridge told the Washington Blade. “There was so much acidity in everything. I really encourage people to go a lot longer and further before coming to that conclusion.”

I don’t even know what that means. Well, yes, cancer does indeed come from “inside you,” which of course means it has something to do with “the environment of your body.”

But the cause of cancer is really stress, nutrition, and acidity?

And a person with a very high genetic pre-disposition to cancer can turn the gene off if they just chill out and eat right?

That’s her alternative?

I happen to have one of those genetic diseases that mysteriously turns itself on. Other members of my family have the disease as well, so it’s quite obviously, somehow, hereditary.

There’s mounting evidence that, at least in the case of autoimmune diseases such as mine, the disease is activated by a virus. The culprit in some inherited diseases may in fact be a retrovirus entwined in the DNA, and activated by an infection which weakens the proteins wrapped around those particular strands.

I’m not saying this explains why some people with BRCA get breast cancer and others don’t. We are, however, making incredible progress in understanding the mechanisms of disease and their roots in genetics. Until such time as we have firm answers, it’s dangerous and irresponsible to advise people with a high likelihood of certain cancers to pursue unproven alternative therapies. Etheridge is offering nothing more than New Age Christian Science.

Yes, healthy living and a stress-free life are good for us. This is not news. That these things can also effectively stave off an almost certain death-sentence from an aggressive form of cancer is just quackery.

Etheridge’s outburst is just the tip of the iceberg: all over the internet natural health militants are condemning Jolie’s decision and characterizing her as little more than a shill for something called “The Cancer Industry.” This kind of garbage is being widely promoted on the internet by howling loons who also think watching out for “sunlight exposure” can prevent breast cancer, and they’re only too glad to sell you a set of CDs explaining their junk science.

The worst part is that women, already facing a horrible decision, may take Etheridge’s words to heart and opt for alternative treatments that are only proven worthless after it’s too late.

Egypt to Tourists: Don’t Come Here

On November 17th, 1997, the Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya terrorist group massacred 62 men, women, and children–4 of them Egyptians and the rest foreign tourists–at the famous Deir el-Bahari ruins in the culturally rich city of Luxor, one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

This week, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi named Al-Gama’a member Adel Asaad al-Khayyat as the new governor of Luxor.

The group allegedly renounced terror in 1997. Before the attack on Luxor.

They renounced it again in 2003, and are now part of the grand rainbow coalition of insane radical Muslims being swept to power thanks to American military and financial aid.

Oh, and one more thing: Al-Gama’a still hates tourists, even if they claim they don’t want to kill them very much right now. The group is comprised of Salifists, Wahhabi-like Islamic rigorists who disdain Egypt’s ancient culture. The Gama’a website includes a fatwa forbidding the construction of tourism resources because “tourist villages have aspects that anger Allah, including alcohol, gambling and other forbidden things, building these hotels and villages is considered aiding their owners in sin and aggression, and is not permitted.”

Just the people you want in charge of one of humanity’s greatest historical treasures.

 

Disqus and Combox Blacklisting

It looks like it’s time for my quarterly reminder that there is a combox policy, and that dialog with trolls is not part of my job description. I know a lot of bloggers just have a free and open comment policy: anything goes! I don’t.

If you’re too tired to check out the whole combox policy post, here’s the quote from Augustine that starts it off:

The time at my disposal does not allow me to linger on all the questions that may be raised by men with time on their hands and with a curiosity for finer points–the kind of people who are more ready to ask questions than capable of understanding the answers.

–St. Augustine, City of God, Book XV–

I’ve been getting the typical drive-by atheist squibs lately, and they all get wished away to the cornfield. And then I tell myself, “It’s really good that you did that, Tom: really really good!”

If your comment is premised on the fact that God doesn’t exist and anyone who believes otherwise is a fool deserving mockery, then just go away.

If you want to ask a question or make a comment from a skeptical or non-believing perspective in a genuine interest of inquiry or dialog, then go right ahead.

Just one reminder: I’m not an apologist, I’m a catechist. My ministry is not to defend the faith on basic points, but to teach the faith to those who have ears to hear. Apologetics enters into that at times, but I’m just not going to re-engage every single theological issue for everyone who toddles along with a chip on his shoulder. It’s not a good use of my time, and other people do it better. I really just don’t have the patience for it. It’s a character flaw, I’m aware of it, and I’m okay with it. It’s only by the grace of God that I’m as civil as I am, since I spent the entire first part of my writing career being a caustic critic notable for my skill with nasty comments. Perhaps the comboxes are my penance for that.

I’m always reminded of Evelyn Waugh, who was criticized for being a nasty man while also claiming to be a pious Catholic:  “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I wasn’t a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being.”

Disqus has a helpful two-punch of spam-marking and blacklisting. Blacklisting has a little description box that allows you to tag each subject with a reason for the ban. I usually just use “asshole,” since it’s a good catchall to describe anyone who winds up banned. If you suspect your comment might contain high concentrations of assholery, just save both of us the time.

Here’s the weird thing: when I moved from being a game and computer blogger to a Catholic blogger, I had this image of comboxes flooded with fundamentalist Christians on anti-Popery crusades. I have never, in over a year here, had a single fundie Christian comment here in a negative or impolite way, despite my fairly obvious low regard for the founding falsehoods of Protestantism in general and fundamentalism in particular.

Oddly enough, only about 5 of my 600-odd posts have been about atheism in any substantial way, but 100% of my banned readers have been atheist. Make of that what you will, but whereas before this blog I had a fairly neutral opinion on non-believers, my experience here (even prior to pissing them all off) has been an eye-opener.

One other thing. I don’t live on this page, and I’m still getting used to Disqus. Comment moderation is on, and it may be a full day before I’m able to approve a comment.

And to all the other readers and commentors, my thanks for your patronage and input. I read everything, even if I don’t reply to each comment.

See How Mel Blanc Did All Those Voices

Courtesy of OpenCulture, here’s a look at the voice of Mel Blanc, whose amazing vocal range and skill at characterization brought most of the Looney Tunes characters to life.

How do you “see” a voice? You stick an optic laryngoscope down Mel’s throat and have him talk, which is just what one clever ENT did. The result is an oddly fascinating look at a man who had complete mastery of his instrument. Each voice has a different shape and motion, and Mel’s control is as absolute as that of any great singer.

BONUS!

Also from OpenCulture: if the title Walt Disney’s The Story of Menstruation makes you snicker, think again. This is a fine educational film from the 1940s, with good narration, excellent animation, and a very light touch of humor.

And ladies, remember: avoid constipation!